Agricultural Solutions to Improve Biodiversity

Norway's Svalbard Global Seed Vault protects thousands of seeds that farmers can rely on in the case of disease, climate, or conflict. Photo credit: SGSV

According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a quarter of the world’s known plant species—some 60,000 to 100,000 species—are threatened with extinction. But in protecting us and our environments against pests and disease, biodiversity underpins much of sustainable development. The following five agricultural practices are key to maintaining a healthy crop diversity in the United States and around the world.   

Seed Banks

Seed banks help preserve seed varieties, while protecting against famine and disease. Storing seed varieties in seed banks helps protect farmers from seed loss while reducing their overreliance on monoculture crops that makes agricultural economies vulnerable to price shocks.

In Norway, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault protects thousands of seeds that farmers in developing countries can rely on to help re-harvest crops that have been affected by disease, climate, or conflict. And in Karnataka, India, community seeds banks are open to any member of the community as long as they don’t use pesticides or chemical fertilizers when farming.

Permaculture

Designing a farm based on the principles of permaculture helps increase biodiversity. Permaculture refers to designing land to take advantage of natural ecological processes by integrating a variety of crops, animals, and pests into one farming system.

Botswana's Mokolodi Wildlife Reserve teaches community members about the value of permaculture, the practice of modeling agricultural off natural ecosystems.  

In Lilongwe , Malawi,  Stacia and Kristof Nordin have developed a permaculture project that teaches farmers about methods to  incorporate composting, water harvesting, and intercropping to help build organic matter in soils while conserving biodiversity. In Botswana , the Mokolodi Wildlife Reserve teaches students and the community about conserving and protecting wildlife in a way that is in harmony with an agricultural system that helps produce spinach, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, green peppers, garlic, basil, parsley, coriander, and other crops. Students come to learn how to grow nutritious food as well as how to protect their native wildlife.

Cultivating Indigenous Crops

As a result of the Green Revolution many countries started relying on growing western crops, such as maize, instead of local crops. To help increase biodiversity, farmers are going back to their roots and growing more indigenous vegetables, fruits, and grains.

In South Africa, Richard Haigh discovered that by cultivating more indigenous crops he was able to improve biodiversity on his farm. His 23 acre farm saw higher yields than ever before when he started integrating indigenous vegetables, fruits, and livestock into his production. And in Tanzania, farmers learned that growing native trees not only helped improve soil fertility but also helped to increase biodiversity. The tree planting project was part of a strategy implemented by CARE International’s Equitable Payment for Watershed Management that aimed at improving ecological farming methods in the region.

Protecting Indigenous Livestock Breeds

Nourishing the Planet adviser Cary Fowler and his Global Crop Diversity Trust breed pest- and disease-resistant crops. Photo credit: Global Crop Diversity Trust

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warns that around 1,710 breeds of livestock—21 percent—are at risk of extinction worldwide. Indigenous livestock are often better suited to local conditions and are better at resisting pests and disease than exotic breeds.

In Uganda, cattle herders have learned about the benefits of raising indigenous cattle and started introducing local breeds into national parks for grazing. This helps raise healthier animals while also increasing the health of local eco-systems through the use of the cattle’s manure.

Crop Breeding

Breeding crops that are resistant to pests and diseases and better adapted to drought or flooding can help make sure that many crops don’t  disappear.  In some parts of Africa, if a disease strikes wheat before breeders are able to make a strand that is disease resistant, for example, as much as 80 percent of the breed can be lost.

The FAO’s Global Partnership Initiative for Plant Breeding Capacity Building works to introduce biotechnologies to developing countries, train farmers in breeding practices, and develop national breeding strategies for target countries. The Global Crop Diversity Trust, whose executive director Cary Fowler is an adviser to Nourishing The Planet, focuses on increasing biodiversity through an endowment that funds projects aimed at crop diversity. The trust, working with the FAO, helps fund pre-breeding programs that help farmers identify which traits are useful to improving crop resistance to disease and pests.

Graham Salinger | February 28, 2012

Read more from the Food & Agriculture team at Nourishing the Planet

You may also be interested in:

 

SOW11

State of the World 2011:
 Innovations that 
Nourish the Planet

 

179

Worldwatch Report #179:
 Mitigating Climate Change
Through Food and Land Use

 

VS12

Vital Signs 2012:
 The Trends that are
Shaping our Future